Much like its time-slot neighbor South Park, Comedy Central’s Ugly Americans has had its share of inconsistency. The fits and starts have been forgivable, though, not just because this is a young show, but also because when Ugly Americans hits its mark, it is distinctive and hilarious enough to make you forget the growing pains. In the first season (earlier this year), there were easily more highs than lows, so I came into the second season with the hope that the creative team had found their rhythm.
Watching the season premiére darkened those hopes somewhat, and then watching the second episode (thanks to an advance screener) rejuvenated them again. “Better Off Undead” is so obviously one of Ugly Americans’ weaker episodes—and “Kill, Mark… Kill!” is just as clearly its finest hour—that I can’t imagine why Comedy Central is airing them in this order. It does the show a disservice.
“Better Off Undead” falters in much the same way as the season-one finale did, by introducing a bunch of disparate plot threads and praying that the force of wackiness will unite everything into a sensible whole. Monster-wrangling social worker Mark Lilly deals with a codependent worm monster; zombie roommate Randall joins a cult; she-demon Callie wishes she had more female friends; gruff cop Grimes explores his lust for elderly chicks.
Mark’s plotline is the bright spot of the episode, mostly because New York improv comic Matt Oberg, who voices Mark, has developed a great, understated comic cadence for the character. Mark is the straightest of straight men, a smarter, more grown-up Philip J. Fry who is both blasé about and astonished by the weirdness of Ugly Americans’ world. Oberg’s job in the show is to be humorously bland, and somehow he nails it.
Kurt Metzger is excellent as Randall, too, but “Better Off Undead” gives him little to work with. He joins a “Zombieology” cult that seems at first to be a thinly-veiled take on Scientology; it turns out that it’s just a standard zombie cult—which sounds weird, I know, but that’s how this episode makes it feel. Both Randall and Mark’s stories peter out with about 10 minutes to go, so the episode plays out the string with some old-people-having-sex gags. It feels like the writers got stuck halfway through a script and ended up cobbling together whatever would get them on to the next episode.
So let’s move on, because next week’s half-hour, “Kill, Mark… Kill!” is superb, exemplifying everything that I enjoy about the show. Just like “Better Off Undead,” there are a bunch of different threads established early on—a revivified Abe Lincoln is establishing himself on the celebrity dating circuit; Leonard faces emasculating “wand issues”; Leonard’s nemesis pursues him, in poster form, from the 2-D space between universes; and so forth.
The difference from “Better Off Undead” is that all the threads are tied together beautifully by the main storyline, a bizarro version of 101 Dalmatians in which Mark actually needs to slaughter all of the cute little creatures. The complexity feels effortless, as if Ugly Americans spends the first act setting up a sequence of comedy dominoes and then nonchalantly gives the lead domino a little shove.
When I wrote about Ugly Americans in April, I made the (probably obvious) point that its comedy works better when it’s matter-of-fact about the wacky monster stuff, as opposed to playing it up. The jokes just feel crisper when the show doesn’t waste any time explaining itself, and “Kill, Mark… Kill!” is a testament to that. I also admit that I’m pretty weary of zombie humor but will never tire of wizard jokes, the gold standard of fantasy/horror comedy.
The surprise that pushes the episode into “A” range for me is that the script has a bit of sweetness—it’s heart wrapped in pessimism, but real heart nonetheless. While Ugly Americans has demonstrated some passing sentimentalism before, “Kill, Mark… Kill!” explores the relationship between Mark and Leonard in a way that’s entertaining, meaningful, and ever-so-briefly moving. It makes me excited again about watching this show grow in its sophomore session.
“Better Off Undead”: C+
“Kill, Mark… Kill!”: A-